(EnviroNews California) — Bon Tempe Dam, Marin County, California — California is burning yet again. Wildfires have been a persistent, growing and fast-moving threat in the state and scientists predict climate change will only cause the number of blazes to steadily increase. To make matters worse there’s currently a drought in the western United States, contributing to fears these conditions could ignite even more devastation.
In an exclusive sit-down interview with EnviroNews, California’s North Coast Congressman, Representative Jared Huffman (D), said there is no “moonshot” answer to stopping these fires, suggesting residents should brace for impact again this season.
CALIFORNIA ALREADY ABLAZE
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) predicts 2021 to be another fiery year; part of the state is ablaze right now with a few hundred thousand acres already having been scorched as of mid-July. The agency’s website said the wildfire season is now starting earlier and ending later. The actual length of the state’s fire season is estimated to have increased in some places by approximately 75 days. The agency points to data crunched by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). “NIFC predicts portions of the Coast Ranges, Sierra, and Cascades in California increasing to above normal fire danger in June and July and continuing through September.”
Cal Fire attributes much of this to climate disruption, writing:
Climate change is considered a key driver of this trend. Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire.
Verisk’s Wildfire Risk Analysis found that of the 4.5 million U.S. homes at high or extreme risk of wildfire, 2 million are in California. The data analytics and risk assessment firm found that the counties of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside and Alameda have the most housing units at high and extreme risk of wildfires.
BEHEMOTH FIRES CREATING THEIR OWN WEATHER SYSTEMS
The fires have become so severe and intense on the West Coast they are generating terrifying “firenadoes.” Tornadoes most often occur during severe thunderstorms, but according to the Library of Congress, Neil P. Lareau, a professor and atmospheric scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno, said a fire tornado “initiates its own weather system helping to concentrate the rotation.” In 2018, Lareau discovered that a fire-generated tornado accelerated the Carr Fire in California. That firestorm had winds of 143 mph — the same strength as an EF-3 tornado.
In 2020, EnviroNews reported how firenadoes that tore through Loyalton, CA, prompted the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) to issue the agency’s first warning about the rotating fire columns known to blast particulate matter high into the atmosphere “like a volcano eruption.”
EnviroNews filming the beginning of the Deadly Carr Fire — Whiskeytown Lake, Shasta County, CA
DEATHS AND DAMAGES RACK UP
According to Cal Fire’s incident data, wildfires in the state have burned more than 7.6 million acres and killed 183 people in the last four years. 4.5 million of those acres burned in 2020 alone; it was one of the worst wildfire seasons in recorded history.
During the 2015 Valley Fire and the subsequent 2017 Tubbs Fire, Napa and Sonoma residents told horrifying stories about firefighters pounding on their doors at 3 a.m. demanding they evacuate immediately. These families had less than one minute to grab their spouses, kids, and pets and jump in their vehicles, drive frantically down smoke-filled streets only to see their homes go up in flames in their rearview mirrors.
Residents of Lake County Flee For Their Lives in Deadly Valley Fire
EnviroNews California: Occidental Community Choir Soothes Santa Rosa Residents After Tubbs Fire Levels Sonoma and Napa Counties
Wild animals are hurt and killed in fires as well. The blazes sweep through and destroy the animals’ habitats, at times leaving them with nowhere to live. Displaced deer, elk and bears are found wandering down highways and through burnt-out subdivisions trying to find food and shelter.
While it’s difficult to know exactly how many wild animals are injured or killed in wildfires, government agencies, veterinarians and rescuers often race to save and rehabilitate burned and displaced animals. Researchers also discovered many wild animals know exactly what to do when fire strikes, while other studies show West Coast flora and fauna actually thrive in burnt-out forest ecosystems. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife performs controlled burns to help the environment. The agency’s website states high and low-severity fires can benefit wildlife and plants, “Fire can act as a catalyst for promoting biological diversity and healthy ecosystems, reducing buildup of organic debris, releasing nutrients into the soil, and triggering changes in vegetation community composition.”
What Happens to Animals During Wildfires — by: Business Insider
Sadly, the destruction includes pets too. Domestic animal shelters fill up with injured dogs, cats, donkeys and horses while welfare groups race to save the pets and attempt to reunite them with their families.
And eerily, when big fires strike, California skies can turn an apocalyptic blood orange color with thick choking smoke and ultra-fine bits of debris falling from the sky. As EnviroNews has reported, particulate pollution from wildfires is causing dangerous, even deadly, health consequences for residents.
Several Golden State communities now top the American Lung Association’s list of most air-polluted cities by short-term particle pollution. The combustion of trees, homes, industrial operations and entire forests during wildfires produce some of the most harmful particulates a person can breathe. They’re easily inhaled and harder to exhale.
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
Some residents are now saying enough is enough. Between the fires, the high cost of living and the taxes, many Californians are moving elsewhere. In Rep. Huffman’s interview with EnviroNews he said he has had friends leave the state. The California Department of Finance report released in December of 2020 showed the state’s population growth hit a record low — so low that California is going to lose a congressional seat — something that is unprecedented. An analysis from North American Moving Services says, “People are fleeing California for Texas and Idaho.” Some residents of Austin, Texas, tell EnviroNews they’re calling their new neighbors from out West “California refugees.”
Meantime, politicians, state and federal agencies continue to argue about the best ways to prevent and get wildfires under control.
In 2019, Rep. Huffman was appointed to serve on the then newly-formed Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. In a news release, he expressed his worry about the impacts of climate change, stating, “Communities in my district on the North Coast of California are already feeling the impacts of climate change, including warming and acidifying oceans, drought, and devastating wildfires.”
Rep. Huffman Lambasts Trump for His Policy on Wildfires, Climate Change: ‘It’s dangerous.’
That same year he introduced the Wildfire Defense Act, which asked Congress to provide grants and funding for local communities to protect themselves against wildfires. Then Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) — who is now Vice President of the U.S. — introduced similar legislation in the Senate. Both bills died in committee, never making it to the floor for a vote. Huffman’s office also published a wildfire resource guide to help California residents impacted by fires.
But Huffman also faced criticism back in 2019, when a Sacramento television station, ABC-10, KXTV, examined campaign finance reports and revealed he was one of 44 members of Congress who took money from PG&E despite the power company’s history of sparking disastrous wildfires. Huffman told the station this in an email:
The PG&E employee political action committee, along with hundreds of other groups and thousands of individuals, have donated to my political campaigns. None of these donations has ever influenced my policy decisions. I pull no punches with PG&E or anyone else when it comes to fighting for consumers, public safety, the environment and corporate accountability, and my record speaks for itself.
So, what are some of Congressman Huffman’s thoughts about wildfires now? On March 26, 2021, EnviroNews Editor-in-Chief Emerson Urry interviewed Huffman at Bon Tempe Dam in Marin County ahead of the fire season to gather the scoop. The two-minute and forty-seven-second interview excerpt can be seen here. The transcript reads as follows:
Emerson Urry: So, I want to segue just a little bit to California — Northern California in particular; [it’s] really ramping up and [people are] starting to feel the impacts of climate. I’ve lived out here close to 20 years now, and I can say that probably three out of the four last years were just like a burning, smoky hell out here. I personally know a lot of people that have said: I just can’t handle it anymore; I’m moving out of here. And that’s another thing that seems like we need almost a moonshot effort to get some kind of a handle on these fires out here. I mean, are we going to get a space-cannon that can dump a whole lake onto a forest? (laughs) Or are we going to [get] ten times the helicopter fleet that we have now? I mean, what is happening there that is going to help California get a handle on this issue?
Rep. Jared Huffman: So, I’ve had friends leave as well. And you’ve described it well. I know a lot of people are looking for that moonshot answer to our vulnerability to catastrophic wildfire in some of these other extreme disasters. I don’t think there is a moonshot — the one thing that you can do to make it all go away; there certainly is not in terms of our exposure to wildfire. I’ve seen proposals, for example, to just buy up every 747 available in the world, convert it to a tanker and just hit everything from the sky. Those of us that have been on the frontlines of these fires know that that would never work.
You can’t even fly the planes in some of these conditions. So, the idea that you’re going to just have this aerial assault that wipes out every major wildfire, it’s not a simple fix; it’s going to take time. Part of it is we’re playing catchup for decades of poor land management, or we failed to use prescribed burns. We failed to keep our forests healthy. We clear-cut and then replanted in this even-age management where these dense, even-aged forests grow up in plantations that are not healthy forests, and they burn like crazy in a fire.
So, we’ve just got all of that work and more to do. Plus, we’ve built right up into the wildland-urban interface, putting a lot of people close to areas that want to burn naturally. All of that is working against us. But I think you will see progress on the forest management side of this challenge. You’re going to see progress in our disaster planning and our materials, our evacuation routes, our ability to be more resilient in the face of this. But there’s nothing anyone can tell you that’s that one thing that’s going to make it all go away.
Urry: Well, I was a little disappointed when Donald Trump didn’t show up with his rake when he came out here.
Urry: But onwards and upwards.
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(EnviroNews Headline News Desk) – Portland, Oregon – On Sep. 10, 2020, Leah Stokes, researcher on climate and energy policy and assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, spoke to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! about the raging fires on the West Coast and how they are…
VIEW MORE SEGMENTS FROM THIS ENVIRONEWS FEATURE INTERVIEW SERIES WITH REPRESENTATIVE JARED HUFFMAN
FILM AND ARTICLE CREDITS
- Emerson Urry - Producer, Journalist, Transcript, Interviewer, Video Editor, Sound Editor, 3D Animator, Colorist
- Mary Schwager - Research Journalist, Author
- Ian Burbage - C Camera Operator, Assistant Director of Photography, Gaffer
- Dakota Otero - Director of Photography, A Camera Operator, B Camera Operator, Assistant Producer